Today, January 31, 2019, is a watershed moment for all the agencies with a stake in the water of the Colorado River. Today is the deadline for everyone on the river to have submitted a plan for cutting their water use in case the drought in the Colorado River basin continues. If the deadline is not met, Brenda Burman, head of the Bureau of Reclamation, has stated that her agency will take over the river.
The agencies in the Upper Basin States of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico submitted their Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) a couple of months ago, albeit without specific numbers. In the lower basin, Nevada submitted its plan as well. The California agencies, including the IID, passed and submitted their plans just prior to the December 12 soft deadline of last year.
Arizona was still not finished at the time of this writing on January 29. Arizona is last because it has the most water to lose and because its state legislature must approve the plan. With junior rights to Colorado River water, Arizona must cut 320,000 acre-feet if the first level of a shortage condition is reached on Lake Mead. For farmers with the weakest claim to water, such as those in Arizona’s Pinal County, this could spell disaster.
Last year’s drama here in the Imperial Valley began in April, when the IID had to repeal its Equitable Distribution Plan for how to respond to the drought. Apart from ordering the repeal, Judge Brooks L. Anderholt also ruled that agricultural landowners must be offered consideration (i.e. payment) when water is provided to new users. So on November 6 (election day), as the IID and the Metropolitan Water Department (MWD) were approaching a deal on the DCP, some agricultural landowners sued the IID. They claimed that under Anderholt’s ruling, any new contract—even with agencies outside the Imperial Valley—was unlawful.
The IID breathed a sigh of relief when on November 29 Anderholt ruled this time that the matter was outside of his jurisdiction. Then on December 10, the IID passed the Drought Contingency Plan that involved the MWD, Palo Verde Irrigation District, and the Coachella Valley Water Authority.
The plan’s biggest benefit to the IID is allowing IID to store water in the MWD system and in Lake Mead. This is especially important in case the IID overuses water. Having stored water in the lake means that in a good farming year, when water use is high, the IID will not have to pay back its overuse with expensive conserved water.
Included in the DCP was an eleventh-hour motion fashioned by outgoing IID Board President Jim Hanks. The motion called for a suspension of the DCP until all the other parties (i.e. Arizona) submitted their plans—and the state of California accepted its responsibility to pay for saving the Salton Sea as stipulated in the 2003 Quantification Settlement Agreement.
The downside of this DCP is that the IID may be vulnerable to losing that stored water—250,000 acre-feet—permanently. With the drought heading into twenty years, critics argue, Lake Mead will never again have enough water in it for the IID to withdraw its storage.
On December 12, good news arrived when the 2018 Farm Bill passed in Congress. New provisions allow the feds to allocate funds to protect and clean up the Salton Sea—perfect timing for Hanks’ motion. The bad news is that no funds have been appropriated. Without big money from the state and the federal government, a shrinking Salton Sea will expose us all to windblown, toxic dust.
Today is the big day for Arizona. Meanwhile, the IID’s appeal of Judge Anderholt’s ruling is slowly making its way through the court. On February 11, IID attorneys must submit their final reply to contest Anderholt’s ruling. After that, other parties may file amicus (friend of the court) briefs. The Imperial Valley Coalition for Fair Sharing of Water (which I support) will then file its brief.
If you think all of this is extremely complicated, you are correct. The Law of the River started with the four-page Colorado River Compact in 1922. Now it runs to thousands of pages and includes enough triggers, conditions, and contingencies to make one’s head spin. Undoubtedly, each agency must now employ attorneys, historians, and analysts to keep abreast of these laws, agreements, and court rulings.
So hold on to your seat. Lake Mead may be a huge, quiet body of water surrounded by a 100-foot-high bathtub ring showing where the water used to be. But the controversy surrounding the lake is like a raging river. And from our vantage point, it feels like we’re running the rapids.